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Caste & the Tamil Nation
Iyothee Thass & The Politics of Naming
29 August 2005
On 3 September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is all set to inaugurate National Center for Siddha Research in Chennai. The research centre was originally to be named after Pandit C. Iyothee Thass (1845-1914), a renowned practitioner of the Siddha form of native Tamil medicine, and also a pioneer of the Tamil Dalit movement. However, the name of Iyothee Thass has been dropped. The foundation for the project was laid on March 27, 1999 by the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi in the presence of then Union Health Minister, Dalit Ezhilmalai, of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). It was at the behest of Dalit Ezhilmalai that the institute was named after Iyothee Thass.
After seven years, Iyothee Thass's name does not figure anywhere. Dalit organizations are protesting. Se. Ku. Tamilarasan of the Republican Party of India (RPI), a sitting MLA, has announced a black flag demonstration against the prime minister and union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss if they refuse to name the institute after the Dalit leader.
The last decade of 20th century marks a significant chapter in the history of Tamil Nadu as the Dalits waged a fearless war against the shudra repression in the sociopolitical realm. The caste war which started in the southern districts slowly spread to the northern districts. The Vanniars designated a Most Backward Class were the main perpetrators of atrocities against dalits in the northern districts. To take the sting off allegations of being casteist and anti-Dalit, the PMK, a party of Vanniars, made Dalit Ezhilmalai a Union minister in the BJP-led government. Within a year, Ezhilmalai demonstrated that he had a mind of his own and started functioning independent of his political masters. It was during Ezhilmalai's ministership and with his patronage that a section of Tamil Dalits rediscovered Iyothee Thass.
The Dalit thinker's writings were reprinted in five volumes through a publishing house called Dalit Sahitya Academy owned by Ezhilmalai. Thass emerged as an icon of Dalit assertion in the ideological sphere. Though the medical knowledge of Iyothee Thass was recognized by many of his contemporaries, including Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society and Thiru. Vi. Kalyasasundaram, a famous Tamil scholar, the attempt made by Dalit Ezhilmalai to name the Siddha research institute after him must be understood in the context of the political assertion of dalits in the 1990s.
Born on 20 May 1845, Thass's original name was Kaathavarayan. His grandfather has served as a butler to Lord Arlington. Kaathavarayan gained expertise in Tamil literature, philosophy, Siddha and had good knowledge of English, Sanskrit and Pali. After organising the tribal people in the Nilgris in the 1870s, he established the Advaidananda Sabha in 1876. He launched a magazine called Dravida Pandian along with Rev. John Rathinam in 1885. He issued a statement in 1886 announcing that the so-called untouchables' are not Hindus. He established the Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1891 and during the very first Census urged the so-called untouchables to register themselves as casteless Dravidians. This in fact makes Tamil Dalits the true descendents of the anti-Brahmin legacy which is today claimed by non-Brahmin non-Dalits.
Iyothee Thass's meeting with Olcott was a turning point not only in his life but also for the Tamil Dalit movement. In many ways, Thass was a forerunner of Dr B.R. Ambedkar.
He led a delegation of prominent Dalits to Olcott and pleaded for his help in reestablishing Tamil Buddhism. With Olcott's help Thass visited Sri Lanka and got diksha' from Bikkhu Sumangala Nayake. On his return, he established the Sakya Buddhist Society in Chennai with branches in many places including Karnataka. The contemporary Tamil Dalit movement has rediscovered its Buddhist roots through Thass.
Thass launched a weekly called Tamilan in 1907 and published it till his demise in 1914. Here, he devoted his energies in critiquing the Swarajya politics of the Congress. Thass was the driving force behind the establishment of several panchama schools in Chennai. He focused on education and the land issue. He interpreted Indian history in an entirely different light in the work Indirar Desa Sarithiram (History of India) which can be classified as subaltern history in a true sense.
Today, even uttering the name of Iyothee Thass in the Tamil public sphere has become an act of a rebellion. The Dravidian parties, communists and Tamil nationalists - nobody has any regard for Thass. No wonder his name has been dropped from the National Center for Siddha Research. This is an insult not just to Dalits but Tamils as such.